Re-imagining Research Experiences by Putting Participants First

As an industry, we are obsessed — and rightly so — with customer and user experiences. There are a variety of ways in which we seek to understand every stage of the customer journey. From post-purchase surveys to on-site polls and even qualitative communities, researchers and brands dedicate vast amounts of resources to tracking and improving customer experience. This is grounded in the fact that we recognise the value of a satisfied customer and the benefits of improving their experiences.

A telling article from Infusionsoft reveals just how financially valuable a positive customer experience can be. The article highlights that companies investing in improving their customer’s experience have seen, on average:

  • 42% improvement in retention rates
  • 33% improvement in customer satisfaction scores
  • 86% of customers are willing to pay more for a better experience

There is no question that researchers, marketers, and even C-Suite executives recognise the tangible value that is gained from improving customer experience. But this begs the question — why do researchers not emphasise participant experience throughout the course of the activities we ask them to take part in? It would logically follow that if brands that offer a superior experience reap financial benefits, then research tasks that provide a better participant experience will provide better data.

There is no question that tangible value is gained from improving customer experiences. So why do researchers or MR firms not explore participant experiences in the same way?

What Do Participants Want?

In an effective customer experience program, one of the first steps is to identify what customers want out of that experience. Are they looking for a highly personalised journey with multiple points of contact with knowledgeable staff members? Or are they looking for a quick, convenient journey with as many points of friction removed as possible? The same kind of questions can be asked of research participants, the answers to which have the potential to radically alter research approaches.

Broadly speaking, research experiences can be presented to participants in two ways, either as an interception (such as a website popup, researcher on the high street, etc.) or as an active choice. The latter is the most common way of building research communities and panels as participants are actively looking to take part in research, and as such, it is not considered so much of an inconvenience.

The way in which research experiences are presented can often have a direct influence on motivations. Participants of intercept-style research are primarily motivated by the speed and ease of participation. Meanwhile participants who have opted in to take part in research tasks are more likely to be motivated by the opportunity to make a real, tangible difference to a brand that they are already engaged with. However, in both cases, a degree of motivation lies with the way in which participants will be compensated.

Fair Compensation

Incentives are the reason many participants take part in research, however, they’re also one of the major causes of tension between the motivations of researchers and participants. As researchers, we’re looking for well-considered, reasoned answers — regardless of methodology; in both a qualitative interview and short survey alike, we’re seeking the truth. Meanwhile, participants are less concerned with what we want from them as their primary motivation is the incentive on offer.

This dynamic is often bemoaned and cited as the cause of poor data quality. But equally, it is a dynamic that is caused by the way in which research tasks are designed. In fact, rewarding participants only at the end of a study is not just the cause of speeding, but also prompts participants to provide answers they believe researchers are looking for, rather than the truth.

One question this raises is whether incentives would be structured in the same way if research was designed around participant experiences rather than research objectives? Perhaps participants would prefer an experience where they received a fraction of a financial incentive for each question they answered, or for a particular length of time they spent on a task. The only way to find out is through research.

Researching Research Experiences

Ultimately, while we can speculate on what the ideal participant experience may be, anecdotal observations mean little unless they can be backed up with data that supports their claims. So what research and hard data do we have on research experiences? Well, very little. A meta-analysis of psychological and sociological studies published by The University of Alberta concluded that studies of participant experience are inherently limited because underlying theories are not being articulated. Additionally, it highlights that conclusions are limited due to the lack of studies — which for the most part involve researchers are studying their own participants rather than analysing the conceptualised experience.

What this means is that, as an industry, we don’t currently have enough data to design research that emphasise participant experience over researcher objectives. We also don’t have enough information to judge whether or not there are benefits to this approach that would outweigh any potential disadvantages.

For an industry that is driven by data and works so closely on improving customer experiences, this is surprising. But, it must be considered within the bounds of commercial context. Marketing and insight teams are under constant pressure to deliver results that will have a direct impact on business performance. While meta-research into participant experiences may improve research quality, and even the methodologies employed by insight teams, it does not offer a direct benefit to businesses. This means creating the best possible experience for your participants often takes a back seat.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. In one notable exception, there’s a fantastic write up from Ben Cubbon from Ovo Energy on the company’s research into the experience of user research participants.

Marketing and Insight teams are under constant pressure to deliver results, so much so, that creating the best possible research experience for participants often takes a back seat.

How to Put Participants First

Fortunately, there are quick and easy steps you can take to roughly gauge the experience your research participants will have:

  1. Test your research tasks with colleagues and gather anecdotal feedback on their experience
  2. Take part in research tasks for others and note which aspects of the experience worked well & poorly
  3. Read forums and review sites in which participants discuss their experiences

In all of these examples, you are looking to identify elements of the experience that can be improved to hold participant attention for longer, prompt more honest feedback and appeal to a greater proportion of your target audience. While this is no substitute to carefully constructed research and analysis into participant experiences, any steps that can be taken to empathise and understand those on the other side of your questions is a step in the right direction.

The original version of this article appeared on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.

FlexMR is The Insights Empowerment Company. We help brands to act decisively, stay close to customers and embed agile insight at the heart of every decision.